It's your first trip here, so when the woman at the rent-a-car asks "Toyota?," you say, "Nope, Mustang."

You climb in, roll down the window, flip on the radio to the Willie and Waylon tune that's been waiting for you all along, and feel the big Texas breeze blowing as you pull onto the Lyndon Baines Johnson Freeway.

This is game week, Cowboys-Redskins, and a visiting Washingtonian wants Dallas to feel like the Big D of rumor and renown.

But even as Willie and Waylon's duet on "Dock of the Bay" segues into Johnny Cash singing "Folsom Prison Blues," something unsettling pops into view, an initial glimpse of the cool football atmosphere found here.

A Chevrolet dealership beside the expressway has a changing neon sign that rises into the skyline.



And then, COWBOYS 24, REDSKINS 20.

You have a few hours to kill before visiting the Cowboys practice field in North Dallas, so you grit your teeth, press down on the accelerator and make off for the Best Damn Chili House in Dallas (according to one of the guidebooks).

You head south on Rte. 35. You pass the Mary Kay Cosmetics headquarters on one side and see in the downtown distance the glassy towers that house the oil companies. With visions of bouffant-haired women driving pink Cadillacs and mustachioed J.R. Ewings joyfully exploiting every oil-rich nation on earth before lunch, you start to feel better, reassured. And hungry.

You arrive at Frank X. Tolbert's Chili Parlor. Tolbert, formerly a columnist for one of the Dallas papers, long ago turned most of his attention to chili. He is the originator of the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, an event second in Texas legend only to Willie Nelson's July 4th concerts.

You sort of wish the place would be a dump, but no such luck. Frank X. Tolbert's Chili Parlor looks like a Georgetown fern bar, with a Texas twist or two. Designer chili. The place is packed but depressingly orderly, with most of the clientele dressed for big business. It feels about as down-home here as Hogate's. This little ol' chili parlor takes every credit card ever issued.

Finally, it's time to head back to North Dallas to get whatever glimpses you can of the Cowboys as they prepare for the Redskins. And you know you're in trouble. You know the Cowboy organization is the last place to fulfill your Northern-bred image of Texas authenticity.

At first you are right. The coaches park in front of the barrack-like building. Every one of their cars is blue. And there are repeating models, twin Grand Prix Broughams, twin big-berth pickups. It's as if Tex Schramm had ordered the cars himself.

Once inside, you see can after Cowboy-blue can of game film, and stack after stack of computer print-outs, documenting, presumably, John Riggins' every heartbeat. True to stereotype, but still disheartening.

You remember seeing "North Dallas Forty" and you start looking for the signs of regimentation. Outside near the 50-yard torture strip of weight machines, Tom Landry has put up a series of inspirational messages that make him sound at once like a tough Richard Simmons ("Fat is hard to see, fat is hard to detect, it enslaves and slows every movement of the body") and a computer-age Nietzsche ("The whole body is nothing but objectified will").

But just as your ride around Dallas showed the city to be, alas, far more sophisticated than you expected, you start finding the Cowboys themselves to be much less rigid than advertised.

You find humor and ribbing in any locker room, but here it is relentless. After Ed Jones sings in the shower, Ron Springs is after him to try a career in music.

"Take another year off and try, Ed!," someone else shouts. No one dares to mention Jones' last sabbatical, his year in boxing.

Even Landry is accessible, patient and sometimes funny.

This is a loose, confident team. The rigmarole surrounding Dallas -- the sleek office, the "America's Team" hype, the humorless, scientific image -- is, at least here among the players, another Texas stereotype ripe for shattering.